Nobody in the 90s seemed to really care about the history of videogames: everyone just played them really. Truthfully though, back then the medium was still in its teenage years; it would be pretty unreasonable to expect people to start looking back and think about the evolution of the medium and the issue of preservation. In 2021, video games are approaching their middle age, consequently, more and more documentaries and books about their history are seeing the light. Retrogaming is not only anymore about remembering or collecting amounts of boxes and manuals: it is also about writing down what was going on, at least before everything gets lost or forgotten. It is no wonder, then, that a book like Masters of Doom managed to sell so many copies and that even Netflix decided to produce a documentary with the highly praised High Score series.
A factor that is easily forgotten when talking about the history of gaming is marketing: how were the games sold, what was the language used, what were the images and references. Unfortunately, watching the High Score documentary doesn’t really help, since it focuses exclusively on what was going on in the US. Personally, I feel it is important, then, to jump at every possible chance to uncover facts and tidbits about what happened in Europe in the 80s and 90s, a market that had vastly different rules and currents.
The EU gaming market
It is generally quite difficult to trace a history of a market so complex as that of Europe in the 80s and 90s, because each country was different and for a lack of official sources and numbers. Still, let us try and get down some basic information.
In the early 80s, home computers were among the best selling items on the market, the few consoles available did sell but had a smaller niche and a younger target audience. Sega was among the first Japanese videogame companies to set about conquering the West, in both US and Europe. They accomplished this by getting to know the different tastes of their potential audience and, then, trying to appeal to that specific public. That approach took its time to work on the American public that, disappointed by the whole Atari market failures, needed a different vibe to fall in love again with video games: cue Nintendo and their idea of redesigning the Famicom to appeal to Western audiences.
In Europe the negative effects of the great market crash were barely felt, Nintendo was being distributed by various companies, Mattel and Bandai among them. Still, the console took a while to gain its footing, while the Master System reigned supreme via specific agreements with German and Spanish distributors. It took several years, only by 1990 Nintendo and Sega were competing on the same level in the EU market, with the first obviously ending taking over the market in the following years, because of Sega’s notorious missteps with the Mega CD (the PAL name for the Sega CD) and the 32X, released in Europe in 1993.
Nintendo of Europe, in fact, would only be created officially in 1990 (see infra), in the following years it would create branches in the Netherlands, Spain, France and the United Kingdom. The Super Mario company, thus, seemed to prefer a regional approach, rather than the unified European approach that Sega employed in the same period. In Italy, in general, Nintendo and Sega were distributed by two different toy importers: Nintendo with GiG and Sega with Giochi Preziosi.
Nintendo in Italy: Wonderland & Mattel
Wonderland – a subsidiary of toys company Worlds of Wonder controlled in Italy by Mattel – was the first to distribute the NES in Italy, it wasn’t a long-lasting relationship though. The Japanese company was pretty unhappy with the poor sales, the high price point and the very limited TV commercials done by the company. The problem seemed to solve itself though since, after little more than a year, World of Wonders was phased out by Mattel.
Coherently, between 1987 and 1988, there didn’t seem to be any major changes in the marketing of Nintendo. They still referred to the NES as a “video system” and to the Zapper as a “video pistol”. This choice of dictionary seemed more in line with Atari and Intellivision, rather than to the more teenage-friendly way that was being used by Nintendo in America. In 1988 Mattel went ahead with the idea of “Nintendo centers”: toy stores where it was possible to try Nintendo titles like Duck Hunt or Super Mario Bros.
Thanks to ADs of the time, it is easy to find out the NES, by the late 80s, was being sold for 200.000 Italian liras (more or less today’s 200€/$) and almost three times as much, 590.000, for the deluxe version. This last version, along with the Zapper (or videopistol), would also include the ROB add-on which was barely supported in Italy: the second game compatible with the small robot, Stack-Up, was never officially sold in stores, apparently
The "New" Nintendo marketing and VIP testimonials
By 1990, with the new decade rolling in, the company’s approach saw a radical shift towards something completely unexpected: celebrity endorsement. Perhaps this was also decided because of Sega rapidly recovering from a false start, thanks to Giochi Preziosi. While this was a common strategy for many Italian commercials, it was pretty unheard of in the world of toys, especially in the eighties. At the time, commercials aimed at children would be normally relegated to the afternoon time slots, where the “TV per ragazzi” (Television for kids) had its place. The celebrities started underlining the difference between marketing for toys and game consoles, now clearly considered to be more important by the companies.
For once, it seemed like Mattel was thinking one step ahead of its rivals. The chosen celebrity was Italian singer and rapper Jovanotti, who at the time was considered a rapper, nothing more than a poor man’s Vanilla Ice. But Jovanotti had a pretty young target audience, hence while it could raise an eyebrow today, for the time it was a sensible choice since Jovanotti was tailor-made to appeal the young generation of “paninari”: kids from Milan who would do anything to follow the latest fashion or trend.
What is peculiar about the “Vanilla Spaghetti” campaign is that Jovanotti would advertise Nintendo as being incredibly American and “popular in the States”, which thinking back to Nintendo probably being the more Japanese company in the gaming industry, can indeed sound perplexing. But, again, it was 1990 and Japan and anime still didn’t have such a grasp on young children, even though things would rapidly change. America was still everyone’s dream, or at least so did the marketing people reckon.
Also, keeping in mind it dates back more than thirty years, it almost seems like Mattel wanted to shrug off Nintendo’s typical family-friendly atmosphere. They abandoned the outdated dictionary of “video system” and the serious Atari and Intellivision-inspired TV commercials and instead went for something “cooler”, “rad” and, perhaps, a bit more “adult”.
The most notorious TV commercial showed Jovanotti trying to woo a girl by showing her how to play Super Mario Bros, along with vague romantic/sexual innuendos. Yes, that is actually the Italian rapper whispering sensually to her about “Mario having to do a lot of jumps…”. Keep in mind that those commercials were – supposedly – aimed at a target audience of 8 to 12-year-olds.
The only other Mattel commercial I’ve managed to track down, I don’t suppose they made others, centers around the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, even though the Christmast release of the game plays almost like an afterthought. In the advert Jovanotti, while playing Top Gun, is having a party with random people who don’t seem particularly interested in playing with the NES.
Naturally, center stage is taken by the appearance of an Einstein lookalike, which is still a figure very much present in Italian marketing, well beyond 1990. He stands for the “smart” consumer: if the scientist does that, then all smart people should follow his example.
While the good scientist is busy playing, Jovanotti receives a phone call by none other than “Mr. Nintendo” (?) and he goes into another room where, of course, there is another Nintendo console on which he plays Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. What is most notable is that the commercial makes no reference to the movie, which came out in Italy in December of 1990. It is easy to conclude that Mattel had no economic interest in its release, especially considering the TMNT toys were being distributed by Giochi Preziosi (SEGA’s Italian distributor).
Despite a lack of official sources on the matter, it is reasonable to think the “Jovanotti” campaign was pretty much short-lived: two TV commercials and a couple of shots for magazine ads with the singer standing on a Harley Davidson, again catering to his beloved “child of America” motif. By 1991, the rapper seemed to have already disappeared from the Nintendo brand.
In June of 1990, Nintendo would found its own branch in Europe (in Großostheim, Germany), it would be easy to speculate how this event would change relationships between Mattel and the Japanese company, since until then Mattel was probably answering to Nintendo of america or, perhaps, even Japan. Despite this hypotesis, by the end of 1990, Mattel seemed to have given up on Nintendo altogether.
Clear consequence of this choice by Mattel will be – as we’ll see – the marketing for the Game boy (which came to Italy in November of 1990, priced around the 150€/$ mark). Even more surprisingly is how some NES titles, like Kick-Off and Paperboy, in 1991, would actually be handled by third party publishers like Leader, an Italian company specialised in PC games. A situation that will not repeat itself in the future: in 1991 Mattel and Nintendo part ways, with the Japanese company then deciding to do the obvious step and give its products to the biggest national toy company, GiG.
Improving on Mattel's marketing approach
*This section of the article was culled from an interview with a former marketing director for Nintendo in Italy*
GiG (Grossisti Italiani Giocattoli) company, founded in 1968 by Gianfranco Aldo Horvat, was the biggest toy importer and distributor in the country at the time, having full control on distribution over the whole Italian territory. Mattel, apparently, had also relied on GiG’s effective distribution in order to cover some of the more difficult to reach areas.
As it turns out by talking to one of the company’s former marketing directors – who personally managed Nintendo from 1992 onward -, among the various contractual obligations, GiG also committed to acquiring whatever stock was left from Mattel. Apparently, he mentions there were a lot of unsold Gameboy consoles and NES cartridges left in stock. This seems to make sense when looking at Mattel’s marketing strategy: they did pretty few Gameboy commercials and none that seemed particularly brilliant. It almost feels like that they either didn’t know how to market the portable handheld console or weren’t really interested.
Gig’s first order of business: selling the leftover NES stock, along with its accessories. Then, they had to find a creative way to market the Game Boy. Last but not least, they also had to prepare for the arrival of Super Nintendo, which was going to be unleashed in Italy a few months down the line, in 1993.
Definitely no small feats, any of them.
The marketing director tells me that Nintendo of Germany acted as a direct employer of GiG, a supervisor of sorts, also establishing a whole set of guidelines, rules and prices. Still, it was only natural that GiG was way more knowledgeable of the Italian market than NoG, so for the most part, GiG could carve its own path with the president, Horvat, usually having the last word on most decisions.
First, the toy distributor hired the Armando Testa advertising agency, at the time one of the more famous in the country, and launched a campaign for the NES, focusing on the most recent games (Super Mario Bros 3 among them) coupled with a more aggressive pricing scheme, a 30% rebate, for games and accessories. The Game Boy was now being sold at 100.000 lire (less than 100€/$), subsequently, they decided to pull out all the stops and produce an Italian market-specific big-budget TV commercial for the Game Boy, directed by then famous actor and director Maurizio Nichetti.
At the time, it was forbidden for companies to refer to their competitors in commercials and advertisements, so GiG could compete against Giochi Preziosi and Sega only creatively. Unfortunately – the MD tells me – the end result wasn’t worth all the sweat and tears, not to mention the big-budget, the marketing office managed to pull for the commercial. Nichetti himself, by the end, seemed to give up on the project and walk away. The commercial is fine and the production value shows, especially compared to other similar products of the time, but it is neither weird nor memorable enough.
But ─ I asked GIG’s former marketing director ─ why go as far as hiring a famous director for an already four-year-old handheld like the Game Boy and, instead, not make something new for the Super Nintendo?
He replied that the Armando Testa agency and Gig quarreled for months on ideas and projects. The agency wanted a mature and serious commercial, GiG still wasn’t ready to consider a console as something more than a toy. In the end, it was deemed more sensible to go with the cheapest and safest choice, one that Nintendo of Germany also strongly supported, thus making everyone “happy”. The international ad was re-cut and used in Italy too, the one with the robotic theme.
Apparently, some of the images were also deemed a bit too strong for Italian kids’ tastes so it was toned down a bit, but the main theme was kept intact.
GiG and Nintendo: a solid relationship
GiG had grasped from day one the importance of this “new” toy, the video game, so much so that 90% of the marketing budget was immediately moved on TV advertising, leaving a minimum for magazines and newspapers. The distributor also used internal testers to check if a title could have success in Italy and, thus, decide if to distribute it or not. Still, he tells me, Nintendo would always particularly push GiG to market the first party titles, rather than the third party ones.
Even before the contract with Nintendo, GiG was distributing the infamous Tiger handhelds. Nintendo, famously jealous of its relationship, sensed a clear interference with the Game Boy market. The MD tells me that they tried to reassure the Japanese company by telling them the Tigers were “an introduction to the world of serious gaming”, so that girls and boys could then, a couple of years later, approach the more serious Nintendo consoles.
The Italian version of Club Nintendo was also being managed by GiG, after being set up by Mattel: it was little more than a poor man’s copy of Nintendo Power in America. A monthly publication with tips and tricks for games, and some poorly translated articles, the MD remembers it was one of the few topics on which there were several disagreements with Nintendo of Germany. It is not fondly remembered by the public either
But what about the idea of going back to celebrity endorsement? Sega at the time was heavy into various soccer players and actors, maybe Nintendo could also benefit from such a strategy? Gig always had a real “toy-centered” philosophy – the MD replied to my observation – hence, they weren’t keen on using celebrity endorsement to sell a product. “We wanted to keep our focus on the product, if it’s good then it’s going to sell, it doesn’t need an actor or a rapper attached to it” he commented.
From 1993 to 1994, GiG’s philosophy proved to be successful, with the Italian market seeing some important changes. “Everything else is Game Over!” cry the kids in the commercial. GiG was trying to use slightly older teenagers by the mid-90s.
On one hand, homecomputers were slowly growing less and less popular, also because of the 1993 anti-piracy law which made things more difficult for pirates. On the other Sega, after a brilliant first two years, seemed to heavily slow down, not only because of the failure of its add-ons but also because by 1994 it was clear to everyone that Super Nintendo just looked better. A reality that further titles like Donkey Kong Country and Star Wing would only cementify.
GiG would ride the wave and also, for the first time, bring Nintendo to the primetime slot, in TV programs that would be broadcasted while families were having dinner, thus finally starting to brand the products as “family friendly”. Things couldn’t be better for Nintendo, or at least so it seemed until 1995 would come along and drastically change everything.
Sony's arrival: the beginning of the end
PlayStation, officially released in Italy in autumn of 1995, would completely change the landscape of videogaming in the space of a few months. Sega had all but vanished, with Sega Saturn being barely supported by Giochi Preziosi, while Nintendo and GiG were taken aback. By 1996, national medias were already wondering if Nintendo could even manage to answer to Sony’s “redesign of the entertainment industry” (Massimo Miccoli on La Repubblica).
In order to answer to Sony’s new way of marketing, GiG decided to pull all stops and commissioned a commercial which featured an expensive 3D rendering of the new Nintendo 64 console. But still, that didn’t help: my interviewee recalls the “disastrous launch” of the Nintendo 64, being finally released in Italian shops in March of 1997. By then, the Japanese company’s way of promoting their games and consoles seemed to be out of step with everything else, but still, no amount of persuasion by GiG could make them change their mind.
Notice how GiG was trying to play to its strengths, reminding consumers about the “two years of warranty” (like that is a feature of the console…). Still, the Playstation had Resident Evil, Ridge Racer, Tekken; the N64 couldn’t really compete, even though it might have been the more powerful console.
Naturally, there would soon be another competitor: the Sega Dreamcast, which was caught between Giochi Preziosi leaving the gaming industry and no one being there to pick up the slack. For all intents and purposes, it seems Dreamcast’s advertising never even reached Italian television.
In 1997 another event changed the way of marketing video games to kids and teenagers: MTV finally arrived in Italy. The director recalls that Nintendo had little to no space in that new television channel which was exclusively reserved for teenagers: it was mostly Sony, again and again. The console market in Italy ended up paying a hefty price for all these years of exclusively catering to children, by positioning gaming consoles right next to toys. No adult would ever be seen in public playing a Gameboy, or going into a toy shop to buy a SNES.
When Sony arrived screaming to the world “Playstation is for teenagers and adults”, their marketing needed no national adaptation or agreements with national toy distributors. Suddently, console gaming had grown up.
1998-1999: Nintendo's desperation and GiG's bankruptcy
By 1998 GiG finally managed to convince Nintendo agreed that something was missing from their marketing philosophy. In November of that year, an Official Nintendo Magazine would be founded, which would finally replace the outdated model of the Nintendo club magazine.
On the marketing side, GiG ended up producing some of their final TV commercials, in an attempt to try and get back at Sony on their playing field: alternative, hyper and “crazy” commercials obviously inspired by what was the style of MTV Italy at the time.
While the rapping idea sounds like something Jovanotti would have tried in 1990, the whole thing seemed to be terribly nonsensical and misguided. Also note the use of apparent young slang like “Nintendo high!” in a desperate attempt to sound relevant with the kids but, instead, ending up horribly out of step with anything else. But the problems didn’t just end with the marketing being outdated.
Sony worked by making direct agreements with shops and distributors, light years ahead of Nintendo that always a little stingy and peculiar in their demands. Things haven’t changed much on that front, have they? With the big N intent at keeping its principles intact, It seemed like nothing could stop the rise of the PlayStation, also noted by national newspapers which titled “The toys industry in a Playstation crisis” (Giancarlo Radice on Il Corriere della Sera, January 1999).
A last ditch attempt was made by GiG, something unheard of for the Kyoto company and never again replicated: Nintendo as the main sponsor of a soccer team! Since GiG’s headquarters were in Firenze (Florence), the chosen team was obviously the big-league home-team Fiorentina and, wouldn’t you know it, there actually was a moment when Nintendo trampled Sony in the dust… but, alas, only on the soccer field. In a match that resulted in Fiorentina beating Juventus, which at the time was sponsored by Sony. The MD recalls everyone in the office printing huge photos of the match and posting them everywhere, savoring the small victory.
That wasn’t all, in that football season Fiorentina would have a Mario being displayed on the *tabellnoe* when a goal was scored, and Wario coming up when the other team scored. “After a while” he recalls “they asked GiG to remove Wario altogether, and just keep Mario… I can definitely imagine why!”.
The sponsorship apparently wasn’t appreciated by every one; even former Nintendo of America’s president Minoru Arakawa complained that it wasn’t Nintendo’s way of doing things. Still, GiG persevered and, in the end, won over Nintendo’s resistance.
The Fiorentina sponsorship ended up being GiG’s final marketing stunt, by the end of 1998 the toy company seemed to be in dire straits. Newspaper reported loss 80 billion liras, on an annual turnover of 537 billions. In 1997 GiG had closed a joint venture with the American company Toys ‘R’ Us, investing millions and millions of liras in order to open several huge shops. The joint venture came at a bad time for the toys industry, seemingly riding on the brand recognition, but, especially in Italy, the Toys’R’Us brand wasn’t recognized at all, also GiG already had its brand of chain shops (Amico Giò).
By December of 1999, “the GiG was up”: they went bankrupt and ended up being bought out by their fiercest competitor, Giochi Preziosi. A pretty bittersweet ending, considering the two companies had been competing head-to-head for almost thirty years.
Gameboy Advance 2001 Italian commercial
Thus, Giochi Preziosi enters again the video game market, after leaving Sega behind in 1998. In the space of a couple of years, Preziosi would also bring to market the Game Boy Advance, but it was a relationship which barely seemed to interested the Italian toys company. This can be easily noted since all the commercials from the time, barely seem to mention the Preziosi brand, which is usually the first thing the Toys company cares about.
In 2002, Nintendo decided to establish a subsidiary in Milano, in the North of Italy, acting directly on the market, with no third party involved any longer. In 2009 former Gig’s owner, Gianfranco Horvat, died in tragic circumstances, shooting his wife and then killing himself. Nintendo’s presence in Italy has been single-handedly created and shaped by a Florence-based company. One could say that for nearly a decade Nintendo has been as Florentine as Renaissance is.
The history of the years in which Nintendo was sold in Italy by toys manufacturer can easily aid in reconstructing a few facts on the console market in the Belpaese. By always anchoring the video game to the toys, the market throughout the 80s and mid 90s registered small numbers, despite being in constant growth. Sony PlayStation found fertile ground, then, thanks to aggressive marketing and direct distribution in shops.
In the space of a few years, Italy went from considering Super Mario a character akin to Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, made for kids, to seeing Lara Croft and Solid Snake on television. These weren’t anymore characters made for a young audience, but serious characters that even adults could consider spending some time with, without having to hide their console. This Nintendo “monopoly” also heavily contributed to Italy, becoming, by the end of the 90s and almost overnight, a Playstation stronghold. The country was indeed fond of Nintendo, but the company never had such a strong foot in the door like in the American market, hence it was easy for Playstation to take their place. Little has changed since.
Still today, at the most famous national games and comic fair, the Lucca Comics & Games, it is easy to notice Sony’s huge stands against a very little presence by Nintendo and, close to none, Sega. The console battle against Giochi Preziosi might have been won by GiG, but the war was lost.
Sources and References
Conversations with former GiG ad man Giuliano Doccioli and the Marketing Director for GiG in 2020/2021.
Newspapers cited in the article.
Thanks to everyone who collaborated in revealing firsthand and unheard-of facts about the distribution and marketing of games in Italy.